Kafka’s Trial, in Three Acts

I see, these books are probably law books, and it is an essential part of the justice dispensed here that you should be condemned not only in innocence but also in ignorance.

― Franz Kafka, The Trial

For the umpteenth time, a university professor has been caught up in an absurdist drama wherein he is hounded for the alleged violation of continuously changing rules for acceptable expression and thought. The penalty, if he fails to escape, will be the loss of career, reputation, and livelihood. These cases seem to follow a pattern, which I will try to elucidate.

This time his name is Jason Kilborn (it’s a coincidence that he has the same initials of Kafka’s Josef K.) and he is a professor of law at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). He became a target by writing an examination question that did not use a racial slur, and did not explicitly quote a racial slur, but asked would-be lawyers to comment on a situation in which someone was alleged to have used racist and sexist slurs. He designated them as “n—–” and “b—-”.

As often happens in similar cases, the serious nature of the initial offense was validated by students claiming to have been harmed. “We do not feel safe,” said one. Another said he felt as though “he no longer belonged in the law school.” Yet another reported heart palpitations. And one had to “seek counsel immediately after the exam to calm myself.” All of these testimonies were anonymous, reported by Kilborn’s main accuser, the university’s Black Law Student Association (BLSA).

Like Josef K. and other academics who have found themselves in similar situations, Jason Kilborn was surprised by the charges and the BLSA’s demands that he be punished. He believed the whole controversy to be a “misunderstanding,” and no action was immediately taken against him.

Thus ends Act 1. A white male (or, somewhat less frequently, a female) is targeted for racial, political, or gender-related heresy. Since it has not yet got to the point that pure wrongthink can be punished, there must be victims who can provide evidence of being harmed by it. These victims are usually not named, on the grounds that this would cause them further harm. So we have anonymous accusers whom the accused is not permitted to confront, making charges of psychic harm that there is no objective way to verify, even if their identities were known.

Act 2 usually comes as a further surprise to the target. It is characterized by a flood of accusations. Kilborn was accused of calling black students “cockroaches,” something he vehemently denies, and a facetious remark he made during a 4-hour conversation with a BLSA representative was construed as a threat of murder. The past is dredged for evidence that can be used against the target; for example it was found that Kilborn had said “bonjour” to a black, French-speaking student, which was interpreted as “diminishing” her for her accent, and that he had referred to media “lynchings” (another word that has been banned for its potential to “harm” black people who are exposed to it). At this point, what he actually said or meant becomes irrelevant: the attackers are locked on. In Act 2, he becomes a symbol of evil, a goat for Azazel.

Once it has been “proved” that the accused shows a “pattern” of racism, transphobia, or whatever (note that the most egregious antisemitism or ageism does not trigger similar reactions) it is possible to incite large scale actions against the target, including petitions, social media campaigns, mass demonstrations, harassment, and even physical violence. Apologies and mea culpas, no matter how abject, are declared insincere or evidence of even more deeply-seated racism, transphobia, or whatever, and further inflame the baying mob. At UIC, students held a rally against Kilborn featuring the venerable Jesse Jackson, who called for action.

Then begins Act 3, in which panicked and/or cowardly university administrators respond by either punishing or failing to support the target against harassment. In Kilborn’s case, his classes were canceled for the remainder of the semester, after which he went on sabbatical. Now he has returned and plans to teach in the spring, facing renewed student protests and calls for his firing. The university claims that an investigation substantiated some of the complaints, but in true Kafkaesque form, would not provide him with a copy of the report.

It isn’t clear what will happen to Kilborn in the Spring. Similar cases have ended in firings or resignations, although sometimes a scapegoat survives, as Connecticut College Philosophy professor Andrew Pessin finally did, after a truly horrendous experience and two years banishment from his job.

This phenomenon has been repeated over and over at universities including the most prestigious, such as this 2015 fracas over Halloween costumes at Yale; and it does not seem to be going away. What it tells us about Western society – at least in the US and the UK where these situations are common – is not good. The list of formerly sacrosanct values that are ignored by the students and faculty that take part in these witch burnings is remarkable: free expression and thought, due process, objective truth, and fairness all take a beating; while incitement, demonization, vindictiveness, racial prejudice, and mob action are exalted.

But this is reality, not a performance of Kafka. The university is often the starting point of social trends, and it is also a repository of pathological behaviors that are not found in people who have to work for a living. Like an infected appendix, if it isn’t treated it can spread its corruption far and wide – and sometimes kill the patient.

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